Nepali Times
Water World
High and dry


DRY SEASON: In winter, farmers dig pits along the Jhiku Khola river bed to irrigate their potato farms pumping the water collected overnight. But this is lowering the water table and affecting crops in the summer.

Farmers in Panchkhal Valley east of Kathmandu have been seen this season carrying kerosene jerry cans to run water pumps to irrigate their paddy fields. Ordinarily that would not be surprising, but this was the middle of the monsoon.

At a time when streams here in Kavre district would be swollen, they were dry. Jhiku Khola, the lifeblood of this valley, did not have a normal flow this year even in August, behaving more like a season stream. Much of the upland rice terraces would have remained fallow if it hadn't been for the water pumps, which run on kerosene because of the electricity shortage.

Natural springs, which should have been gurgling with water are still dry this year. The monsoon has been arriving late by up to two weeks for the last few years, which is delaying rice plantation, reducing ripening time and harvests. In Dhankuta in eastern Nepal, only about half the paddy has been planted this monsoon. Hill farmers wait till the first week of August, and if it still does not rain adequately, the drop in harvest doesn't make plantation worthwhile.

The riddle for us was why the Jhiku Khola in Kavre was dry. Lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and aquifers in the hills are full in the four monsoon months even when only a fraction of the precipitation seeps underground to recharge groundwater. That groundwater seeping out of mountain slopes (mool) is what people in the hills depend on for their water needs.

Traditionally, Nepalis have names for three types of springs in the mountains: the more or less permanent sthayi mool at the foot of hills, the one that comes to life in July called asare mool and then the saune mool that bursts in August. The timing of springs indicates the extent to which the monsoon has replenished groundwater reserves in the hills.

After mid-September saune mool first begins to dwindle, whereas asare mool continues to flow for a longer period, sometimes even until November. Interestingly, the saune mool does not burst every year, and farmers know that in such a poor monsoon year bumper winter crops can never be expected as the streams too will dry out sooner.

There has been a reduction in groundwater recharge in many parts of the country in the last few years. Some villagers in the hills of Taplejung and Ramechhap even had to shift to lowlands because their springs had dried out. The village of Dhe in Upper Mustang lost its spring and the entire village is in the process of being relocated across the Kali Gandaki. Villagers can move, but when entire regions begin to suffer as is happening in Kavre, it requires serious new thinking.

Farmers in Panchkhal had to use water pumps because asare mool did not come to life even in the middle of the monsoon. It is unlikely that saune mool will appear this year, which means Panchkhal will suffer yet another winter, sixth year in a row, of acute water shortage. All this is indication that Panchkhal, Ramechhap, Taplejung are facing rainfall variability, most probably due to climate change.

Some other factors may also have contributed to low discharge in springs. The spread of road networks in the hills tends to disrupt natural drainage channels on slopes by diverting runoff elsewhere. The depletion of the groundwater table in the Tarai is being caused by over-extraction of groundwater not only within Nepal but also across the border. However, the case in the hills is different: water flows down due to gravity.

The springs have ceased to flow at a time when they are expected to be flowing in full capacity. If what is happening to springs is an indication of a fundamental shift in the timing of rainfall, its distribution, impacts of building road networks, and a lasting change in water regime, it will have major impact on hill agriculture. The crops we grow, the level of production, cropping cycle, dairy production, and overall food security will all be affected. It will take a long time before we adapt to the changed timing of the new water cycle.

The Himalayan mountains have been described as 'water towers' that store water as snow and ice and their melting in the dry season brings water to downstream areas. But it now seems like the Himalayan highlands are more like gigantic sponges that store groundwater, and erratic rains can deplete groundwater supply and affect a lot more people.

Madhukar Upadhya is a watershed expert currently working as an adviser with Poverty Environment Initiative in Nepal.

Read also:
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Private water for the public, NIRENDRA BASNET
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The Melamchi side of Melamchi, DANIEL M MAXWELL in SINDHUPALCHOK
Benefit sharing of Melamchi water revenues with local communities will set the precedent for future mega-projects in Nepal

1. Gopal Raj Joshi
Dear Madhukar sir

I would like to thank you for interesting article which an indication for changing climate that will definitely have an adverse impact to local livelihood. There are many more instances in Nepal where local livelihoods are challenged by the changing climate but local people do not know what to do. Your article has correctly highlighted the issue. However, the article has left out the solution part. We would have been benefited if you have also discussed about the potential strategies that local people need to devise to live in changing climate.

2. Nashib

Very pertinent issue presented in the article. Being born and brought up in Panchkhal, I have seen these changes happening in front of my eyes over the years. Year on year, the paddy cultivation is getting delayed at least by a week or two. This year we could not put "Dhan ko Biu" in time because of less water as we normally germinate the Dhan ko Biu in a Water Pool unlike the practice in Kathmandu and nearby region (where the Dhan ko Biu is germinated in the dry mud). This delay in the cultivation of paddy will surely affect the paddy production and also the potatoes and vegetables to be grown then after. In the Panchkhal area, the maize plantation has also been delayed, earlier it used to be in Baisakh and this year it was delayed until Ashad. No rain this year until Ashad. Changes in Panchkhal can be easily seen and perceived.

With this trend, a day will come in the region when kerosene will no longer be required because there will be no water in the Jhiku Khola to pump in even if you go meters deep.

3. Vivek O' Vivek
Superb Article! No doubt, our local farmers need their springs recharged to cultivate their lands. Global debate of Ice melting of Everest wouldn't bother them much compared to what the depleting discharge in their local springs and streams would do to hinder their productivity. These kind of issues need to come out and how. Sadly, anything relating to Ice/Snow is a climate material here and nothing else is.

4. Saroj Koirala
Since I am the Local resident of Panchakhal I am facing this problem since last few years back.If we don't think about the watershed management of Jhiku Khola water basin in time then not only the Panchkhal but whole Kathmandu Valley will be in problem since Panchkhal is one of the main place for vegetable production upon which valley  people depend on.

5. Bigyan Neupane
Sir, your article reflects the present condition in Jhiku khola watershed. Now the days are near when people dig the soil even deep in the dry river to make a pool of water for irrigation. Condition would really be pathetic in coming years. Being a hub for the vegetable production but frequent use of kerosene for running water pumps for irrigation seems overburden for the farmers. This definitely hits their status and the price hike in vegetables could be seen in Kathmandu Valley as well.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)